In the past week or so, it has become mainstream news that a biotech company (Bioquark Inc.) in the United States of America has been granted approval to attempt to restore brain function to twenty patients who have been clinically declared dead from a traumatic brain injury (Knapton, 2016). Of course, some of the most popular initial comments from the general public revolved around how such a trial could be the beginning of a zombie apocalypse. While the basic principle of the trial does sound a little like something found at the start of a zombie horror movie, a fundamental explanation of the intended processes provides the public with a look into the science involved.
Scientists will use a combination of therapies, which include injecting the brain with stem cells and a cocktail of peptides, as well as deploying lasers and nerve stimulation techniques which have been shown to bring patients out of comas.
The trial participants will have been certified dead and only kept alive through life support. They will be monitored for several months using brain imaging equipment to look for signs of regeneration, particularly in the upper spinal cord – the lowest region of the brain stem which controls independent breathing and heartbeat.
The team believes that the brain stem cells may be able to erase their history and re-start life again, based on their surrounding tissue – a process seen in the animal kingdom in creatures like salamanders who can regrow entire limbs.
Knapton’s explanation of the trial – though obviously only skimming the surface of what scientific processes will be implemented – makes it seem less like science-fiction and more like the possibly life-altering medical experiment that it is. That being said, if a zombie apocalypse were to actually occur, these scientific processes seem like they’d be a feasible explanation for its commencement (though how this would manifest as a virus and then spread would still need to be considered).
One possible theory for way the therapies determined to be used in Bioquark Inc.’s trial could result in the zombies of pop-culture would be if they combined with a dormant viral infection and mutated.
Professor Neil Ferguson, who is one of the UK government’s chief advisers on controlling the spread of swine flu, said the study did have parallels with some infectious diseases.
“None of them actually cause large-scale death or disease, but certainly there are some fungal infections which are difficult to eradicate,” said Professor Ferguson, from Imperial College London.
“There are some viral infections – simple diseases like chicken pox have survived in very small communities. If you get it when you are very young, the virus stays with you and can re-occur as shingles, triggering a new chicken pox epidemic.”
Much like how chicken pox can become shingles despite lying dormant for years, or how typhoid carriers may not be affected by symptoms themselves though the bacteria remains within them, if a previously dormant life-threatening virus combined with the therapies of Bioquark Inc.’s trial (assuming the trial is successful), the possible result of such a merger would at this point be unknown.